I was recently asked by a young and annoyingly successful poet how I thought language learners dealt with the special demands that poetry puts on the reader, and the discussion that followed led us into a marvelous land.

Not long before, I recalled, I had been involved in some work with the Pakistani-born British poet, Moniza Alvi, herself once an English teacher, which had brought us directly into contact with this issue.  Moniza's poetry tends towards the metaphysical and esoteric and, while the subject matter may often seem to appeal to hormone-driven teenagers, the language could well be seen as a barrier. 

Rather mischievously we asked a few teachers from different schools to engage their students in some experiments and in one case especially asked from one school that they choose a "difficult" class of 15 year olds.  The large group of disgruntled and monosyllabic students that the teacher chose fitted well almost any concept of "difficult": they were profoundly unresponsive, disinterested and, it seemed, perpetually on the edge of mutiny – except they couldn't be bothered.  Other students from other schools brought other qualities to the project, ranging from bright-eyed interest to arty enthusiasm, though sullen apathy could be detected in each and every classroom. 

What we were asking the students to do was to consider some of Moniza's poetry and to work in small groups to create short animated movies, based on one poem of their own choice, using computer-generated flash animation.  There was some sound pedagogical thinking behind the processes that lead to the creation of the movies and we thought that some works of merit ought to be produced, but the end result was something so surprising that it stunned the teachers – and the poet. 

What had surprised even the hard-bitten teacher of the recalcitrant fifteen-year-olds was their full-hearted engagement with the poetry and with the project generally.  While clearly using the medium of animation had sparked an interest that might otherwise have been lost, the way that students with even a shaky grasp of the English language had dived into Moniza's poetry was astounding.  Somewhat shaking with emotion while gulping a post-class coffee, one teacher claimed that what we had just witnessed was something she christened the "creative ownership" of language.  And it all came down to the words.

It seemed that the poetry, in the minds of many students, had released the words from the iron grip of grammar and their sounds and meanings, implied or substantive, had become the personal possession of the reader.  It seemed quite clear that the dynamic of being involved in the creative process of animation-making had turned the student into a reader, a researcher and a thinker – as an individual that stood outside normal classroom activity. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that most students developed a personal relationship with the poetry far beyond anything that they had experienced with the English language before, at least in the classroom.  In fact, they were using the words as they were supposed to be used, not as some dry, curriculum-driven exercise but by unlocking feelings and meaning hidden in the depths of the conscious and subconscious.  That's what poetry does.

At one point I argued that grammar still existed in the poetry, that the words weren't entirely free of syntax or other structures but the students rebuffed this argument, saying that it was merely a way of avoiding chaos and anarchy and that the individual words themselves held pre-eminence over structure.  I thought about this, and wondered why the same students felt differently about prose which, in many hands, displays the same characteristics.

Back to the poet who asked me the question in the first place, the Welshman Owen Sheers.  He maintains that poetry is the cutting edge of language, the point of greatest precision in communication.  His own poetry is spare and lean, sharp as a scalpel and as focused as a laser.  I have used his poetry with classes of my own and have been constantly surprised that this careful use of language is not lost on the students.  Sometimes, I noticed, what I had thought of as an especially clever or apt use of alliteration or metaphor was not picked up by the student reader, though instead, they saw meaning, colour and inference where I hadn't.  They were able to consider the words on the page through a lens different to the one I was using and were able to reveal wonders that resonated deeply with them. 

Of course, all this observation on the part of the students had to be negotiated with the others in their groups and, eventually, turned into some visual, or audial, representation.  As teachers we regarded this part of the process as the key moment, the point where language would have to be found to express often complex thoughts.  Most students, perhaps surprisingly, attempted to do this in English even when they were clearly struggling – even our mutinous fifteen-year-olds.  They were focused on the goal of making and showing a short animation and the process we found most interesting was, to them, merely a means to an end.

Later I was able to show the results to other teachers during the course of a national conference, and some went away inspired enough to try this out for themselves.  A popular choice was the "dub" poetry of Levi Tafari whose Jamaican roots brought a very different rhythm and vitality to his words than those of Moniza Alvi.  Some of the students had seen Levi perform when he toured the country and had been inspired by his larger-than-life presence.  The results, in terms of student endeavor, discipline and achievement were of similarly high standards to the original pilot project.

The lesson for teachers from these experiments ought to be how much more our students can achieve if the motivation is sufficiently strong and that, perhaps, we too often stand as unnecessary gatekeepers to complex and demanding language, erroneously deeming our students not to be of a sufficiently high standard to access it. And the answer to Owen Sheers' question about why it is that language learners seem to work well with the sophisticated language of poetry is that they are able to see beyond the words and connect with meaning and that, after all, is what poetry is supposed to do.

Based on the poem "Fish Swimming" by Moniza Alvi, this video was made by students from José Estêvão school, Aveiro, Portugal:

This video was made for Levi Tafari's poem "Weather Rapport":